I want to talk a little bit about Mike Conley, George Hill, and Avery Bradley. All three are players that epitomize the positive things that can happen when an organization puts unwavering faith in a young players’ abilities.
No one would question that all of these players have talent. They had brilliant college careers and were touted as special from a young age. Yet, none of them showed their true potential at the professional level until they were given the full royal jelly treatment.
The “royal jelly” refers to the food that certain honey bees eat that allows them to develop into queens. The larvae destined to become queens are fed a different substance than the rest of the bees. If they don’t get this food, they can’t become queens. (The name invokes images of some sort of delicious caviar crossed with Smuckers. In reality it an ooze secreted from the heads of the worker bees. Royal jelly certainly sounds better than brain pus.)
The idea that special treatment during different stages of development can affect who succeeds has been applied to athletes. I first read the term royal jelly on Truehoop, and they have discussed it at length. I’m not reinventing the wheel, just continuing to point out that circumstances and minutes are often the only difference between a player being a star or a bench warmer.
Hard work and preparation are critical to anyone becoming successful, but without the right opportunities a players’ talents might never show through. Some people think that all athletes who perform at a high level were destined to be in those positions. That is not at all the case. I think that there is a razor thin margin between most of the top basketball players. Those that get the prime opportunities, through a combination of luck, work ethic, and perseverance, are the ones most likely to become stars.
I found this to be true for me in both high school and college. In both cases I was almost immediately given a long leash and ample playing time. If there had been a slew of older guards at my position, or my coaches had not had faith in me, it is likely I would never have made it to the college or professional levels. It’s not like people are clamoring to sign small white guards, sight unseen. I needed a lot of time to prove myself.
On the other hand, there are also a lot of cases where players are presented with tremendous amounts of playing time and do nothing with it. There are high draft picks who fizzle out pretty much every year. Playing time and freedom alone do not a great player make.
You can find out that a player stinks by playing him a lot, but you can never find out how good someone is if they are never given a chance. You can’t create something special without taking the proper steps to cultivate it. Conley, Hill and Bradley have flourished in large part because of the nurturing environment that their teams provided.
People thought the Grizzlies were crazy to sign Mike Conley to an extension. I even found an article from CBS sports with the headline “Grizzlies Commit Franchise Suicide, Extend Conley.” (A little extreme with that headline, Matt Moore? Reminds of Israel. The Israeli media is super fickle. Over the course of last season Keith Langford, a player for Maccabi Tel Aviv, would go from being considered Moses in a yellow jersey, to a complete and utter waste of money, to the heart and soul of the team who ought to be resigned for millions of dollars. Sometimes all that would happen over the course of 2 games. You would never hear something like “Langford is a serviceable guard who has proven himself before. He isn’t going to score 30, but he should be pretty stable.” It’s either “trade him to a team in Siberia, let him freeze to death!” or “let’s rename the city Langford-aviv!” Call them irrational, but you have to love their passion.)
Anyway, up to that point in his career Conley had a low assist rate, and his teams had never made the playoffs. But Memphis stuck with him, and gave him a major vote of confidence by extending his contract. The following year Conley helped lead the Grizzlies to the brink of the conference finals in one of the most exciting playoff runs in recent memory. He was running the offense efficiently and hitting all kinds of big shots. Could he have done this if the Grizzlies had signed a veteran point guard for him to split the minutes with? If the coach had yanked him after every turnover? It’s possible, but very unlikely. I think this is a case where the team benefited by showing a player just how highly they regard him.
Indiana’s George Hill was the backup for Darren Collison for the majority of the 2012 season. He was putting up decent numbers, but nothing that made people question Frank Vogel’s decision to give the lions’ share of the minutes to Collison. Then Collison got hurt, and Hill exploded. With the knowledge that he was the only real point guard option, it seemed like Hill played with a newfound freedom. The Pacers went on a 7 game winning streak once he entered the lineup, and he averaged 15, 5 assists and 4 rebounds over that stretch. He started for the remainder of the season and the playoffs and got rewarded at the end with a 40 million dollar contract. The way I see it, no Collison injury, no extra playing time, no extra confidence, no 40 million dollars. (This is almost identical to what happened with Goran Dragic after Kyle Lowry went down, btw.)
Back in November, Avery Bradley of the Celtics was getting criticized by the Israeli press for not performing like an NBA import. He had been signed during the lockout by Hapoel Jerusalem. Everyone in Israel had high expectations for the young NBA player, and they didn’t feel he was playing up to par. His team struggled and his minutes became sporadic. When the lockout ended he went back to the Celtics. The feeling out in Israel was that it was kind of a blessing, because he was not living up to the hype.
Bradley’s return was definitely a blessing for Doc Rivers, because he came up huge when guards Ray Allen and Michael Pietrus went down with injuries. He went from being a bit player, averaging about 15 minutes a game, to a starter. For the month of April he was up to 33 minutes a game with averages of 15 points, 3 boards, 2 assists and a steal. The Celtics winning percentage surged in tandem with Bradley’s productivity. The team went 14-5 over the last 19 regular season games. Bradley’s defense and energy became a critical part of what made the Celtics so dangerous. That this was not realized until he was allowed to play two thirds of the game is indicative of just how important the royal jelly treatment can be.
I feel a certain amount of kinship with each of these players. As I have probably mentioned before, during my senior year of college I found myself in a tough position. I was constantly fighting with my coach and my minutes were never stable. Eventually, late in the season, we got on the same page. I had one good game and that got the ball rolling. By the end of the year my coach started praising me, encouraging me, and allowing me to play without fear. My performances improved exponentially.
You cannot underestimate the power that comes with freedom on the basketball court. If you start peeking at the sideline after every mistake to see if someone is coming in for you, you might as well just sub yourself out. Don’t get me wrong, this is a cutthroat industry, and a coach would be silly not to take someone out who was constantly messing up. But, as John Wooden astutely noted, “If you are not making mistakes, you are not doing anything. A doer makes mistakes.” You are never going to play at a high level unless you trust your instincts and shrug off your errors. The best way for a young player to obtain that type of attitude is to know that he has the full support of the organization behind him. I think Conley, Hill and Bradley are perfect examples of what can happen when a high level player receives a good, healthy dose of royal jelly.